(Tehran) “Welcome Ronaldo! »: the Iranians on Monday fervently welcomed the Portuguese star of the Saudi team Al Nassr which is due to face Persepolis in Tehran, a match made possible by the diplomatic rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The frenzy around Cristiano Ronaldo was such that dozens of fans briefly invaded the lobby of his team’s hotel to try to approach him and take his photo.
Al Nassr then canceled his trip to the stadium for a final training session before Tuesday evening’s match.
At the start of the afternoon, it was all smiles as Cristiano Ronaldo and his teammates were greeted by the cries of joy of dozens of fans as they left the Imam Khomeini airport by bus.
Previously, “CR7”, the nickname of the 38-year-old Portuguese international, was offered a sumptuous Persian carpet by the president of the Persepolis club.
Large “Welcome” banners in English, Arabic and Persian with portraits of Al Nassr stars were hung on the bridges of major roads crossing the immense Iranian capital, unaccustomed to welcoming international icons due to isolation diplomatic of the country.
“It was a great moment, we all appreciated” the welcome from Iranian supporters, explained Al Nassr coach Luis Castro at a press conference.
Persepolis coach Yahya Golmohammadi was pleased to welcome a “great team”.
” It’s awesome ! », enthused Navid Borhanifar, a 28-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo fan. He says he hopes for “a great match” between “the stars of Al Nassr” and Persepolis, where “experienced players” play.
Unfortunately, no fans will be able to attend the match on Tuesday in the Azadi stadium, the largest in the country with its 90,000 seats. The fault lies with a sanction imposed by the Asian Confederation (AFC) after the publication in 2021 of a controversial post on the Persepolis Instagram page.
The match played behind closed doors will however be broadcast on television (9:30 p.m. local, 2 p.m. Eastern time).
“Playing in an empty stadium doesn’t give you the taste of real football,” lamented Luis Castro.
Yahya Golmohammadi said he was “sad that this great match will be played without spectators”.
Until kick-off, Al Nassr players are placed under the security of an “elite unit” of law enforcement, specialized in presidential trips, according to the sports site Varzesh 3.
The arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo, whose Instagram account has 605 million subscribers, also relaunched the debate on restrictions on internet access in the Islamic Republic.
Iran has severely limited access to social networks since the start of a protest movement in 2022 after the death in detention of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, arrested for violating the strict dress code in force in the country.
A senior Persepolis official, Reza Darvish, proposed that the Saudi team obtain Iranian SIM cards with unlimited internet access.
On a sporting level, the challenge is to get off to a good start in the Asian Champions League, of which the Saudi clubs are now favorites after having strengthened significantly during the summer. Al-Nassr thus recruited the Senegalese Sadio Mané and the Ivorian Séko Fofana.
Al-Nassr will try to avenge their defeat against the Reds in the semi-finals of the competition in 2020.
The most successful and popular club in Iran, Persepolis was a finalist in 2018 and 2020 in the event, won in 1995 by Al Nassr.
This match also has a diplomatic dimension since it is the first to pit Saudi and Iranian clubs on opposing ground, and not on neutral ground as has been the case for seven years.
The AFC gave the green light in August, five months after the agreement to resume ties between the two Middle Eastern heavyweights concluded in March under the aegis of China.
Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shiite-majority Iran severed relations in 2016 after Saudi diplomatic missions were attacked by Islamic Republic demonstrators protesting Riyadh’s execution of a Shiite cleric.
The AFC then found an arrangement, described at the time as “very unfortunate”, allowing teams from the two countries to face each other on neutral ground.